If an advertisement autoplays for a bot on a site that’s not publicly listed or indexed by search engines, does anyone see it? According to Google, people do see the ad, which has led to a purported class action against the company that claims it overcharges advertisers for the “privilege of autoplaying their advertisements into the void.”
A suit filed against the Alphabet-owned company on Wednesday accuses the tech giant of misleading advertisers about its “TrueView” ad program by inflating metrics on its ads, which are allegedly displayed as muted, autoplaying videos and served on unlisted webpages in violation of promised standards.
TrueView is Google’s “proprietary cost-per-view, choice-based ad format that serves on YouTube, millions of apps, and across the web,” in which advertisers only pay for actual views rather than impressions. The ads ask users if they want to skip the video after 5 seconds. Google’s policies state that ads must be skippable, audible and that playing the video can’t solely be initiated by passive user scrolling.
But a recent report from analytics firm Adalytics shows that roughly 80 percent of Google’s video-ad placements on third-party sites violated its standards. It found that the alleged scheme “may have cost media buyers up to billions of digital ad dollars.” Companies that may have been misled include HBO Max, Microsoft and TikTok.
The suit claims that TrueView ads were served as autoplaying or scroll-to-play videos. “This means that rather than requiring a consumer to actually click on a video to see the advertisement, the video would effectively play on its own,” states the complaint. “This has the material effect of downgrading the value of each ‘view,’ as some of these views would not be a view at all, and certainly not an intentional view.”
Additionally, multiple ads for different advertisers were simultaneously served, according to the suit. For several of the ads, the skip button was hidden or obscured, “artificially inflating video completion rates, and by extension, the prices paid by advertisers.”
“Finally, the advertisements were served to web-crawling bots, including bots run by Google itself,” writes John Nelson, a lawyer for the class, in the complaint. “So, rather than paying for actual plays from actual potential customers, Google deceived advertisers into paying for advertisement views by Google bots itself.
The suit also says that some ads were placed on apps and sites developed in countries sanctioned by the US government, including Iran. The Adalytics report notes that advertisers are “inadvertently sending funds to Treasury sanctioned entities.”
The purported class action seeks to represent all advertisers who paid for TrueView in-stream ads. It claims breach of contract, unjust enrichment and violations of California’s unfair competition law. The named plaintiffs include Devon Holmes, who paid Google through his marketing company Sprizzy, and Deshawn Williams, who “paid Google to runs ads for his business in or about January 2022,” the complaint says.
The complaint was filed as Google fights a federal antitrust suit from the Justice Department and several states accusing the company of abusing its dominance to stifle competition in the digital advertising market. In June, Gannett sued Google for allegedly abusing an illegal monopoly over the technology that powers online advertising.
Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.